This essay is part of a series, Pursuing Peaceful Coexistence with North Korea, that explores how the United States and South Korea can peacefully coexist with a nuclear North Korea. 

Last September, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, traveled through Russia’s Far East, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss munition sales in return for collaboration on space and other military technology. While Kim was outside of North Korea, Pyongyang test launched a ballistic missile in a move that is becoming quotidian. Although the test was one of dozens that have happened just in the past year, it was the first such test to occur while North Korea’s supreme leader was out of the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, met in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via The New York Times)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, met in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via The New York Times)

The message was clear: If North Korea can test a nuclear delivery system without Kim, it could launch a nuclear attack without him, too. Following the 2022 revisions of North Korean law that suggested automatic and immediate nuclear retaliation if North Korea’s nuclear command and control system, which includes the supreme leader, is attacked, this test offered a complementary signal that, should anything happen to the country’s leader, the result for the rest of the world would be catastrophic.

Although regime change is not the U.S. government’s formal policy toward North Korea, it is no surprise that Pyongyang is anxious. The rhetoric of regime change and U.S. support for regime collapse has long been part and parcel of U.S. policy toward North Korea, albeit often in hushed undertones. Yet even these quiet messages are counterproductive, inadvertently emphasizing the need for North Korea to maintain its nuclear arsenal to safeguard the survivability of its regime. Instead, U.S. strategic messaging should reduce the threat of regime change and enhance the potential for sustainable relations.

A Policy of Not-Quite Regime Change

Regime change is not the formal U.S. policy toward North Korea. And yet, echoes of it remain, with messages around the intolerability of the Kim regime a longstanding feature of U.S. politics.

This rhetoric is often tied up in language about the need for denuclearization. For example, President Biden’s 2022 National Defense Strategy includes the statement that “there is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.” The line has been echoed often by Biden and his top officials.

This approach largely represents a continuation of how previous presidents have talked about North Korea. For example, former Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo recalled President Donald Trump asking the agency in 2017 to develop options that would “separate” the North Korean regime from its missiles and nuclear weapons. While Trump’s rhetoric toward North Korea oscillated from bellicose (“fire and fury”) to chummy (“love letters”), the denuclearization objective remained clear throughout his presidency.

Before Trump, President Barack Obama oversaw a policy of “strategic patience,” which attempted to use nonviolent coercion to manage threats from North Korea. The policy evaded advocating explicitly for regime change, but that was partially because the Obama administration thought the regime might collapse on its own. In a 2015 interview, Obama explained that “you will see a regime like this collapse … and that’s something we are constantly looking for ways to accelerate.”

Before that, the George W. Bush administration debated overtly espousing regime change and preemption against leaders in the so-called Axis of Evil, before eventually embracing a diplomatic, rather than military, approach to North Korea. That marks decades of U.S. policy under the shadow of regime change.

The United States has faced notorious consequences for meddling with regime change in the past, and any attempts to do so in North Korea would prove no different. At best, decapitation of the Kim regime would likely result in a more anti-U.S. replacement for Kim. At worst, it could cause instability in the country and the region, start a war or trigger North Korean use of biological, chemical and/or nuclear weapons.

Putting aside the question of whether regime change would be possible or advisable, the more immediate issue is that even a subtle whiff of regime change in U.S. policy can undermine deterrence goals by increasing mistrust and strengthening North Korea’s resolve.

North Korea and the Problem of Asymmetry 

A key puzzle in U.S.-North Korea relations has long been why the United States, with its far more powerful military, is so often unable to deter or coerce North Korea’s nuclear and military development. New research that Abby Fanlo and I recently published argues that the answer lies in the balance of resolve. 

While scholars have often talked about the balance of capabilities — arguing whether more powerful states should be able to better manipulate their security environments — capabilities mean little without resolve. After all, what good is a weapon if no one believes you will use it?

Examining dozens of crises occurring between nuclear-armed states, we argue that there is a surprising drawback to nuclear superiority. It changes the dynamics of crisis deterrence and allows weaker states to show more resolve.

A key insight of deterrence theory is that when states can impose similarly destructive consequences on each other, both will be able to prevent enduring threats to their core interests. Scholars call this “general deterrence,” and it is what allows powerful, nuclear-armed states to shape their security environments. For example, during the Cold War, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could threaten each other’s essential interests without being willing to endure unthinkable consequences.

But this dynamic works differently when one state is far more powerful than its adversary. For example, the United States can threaten the integrity of the North Korean regime, but North Korea would struggle to do the same.

Just because North Korea can’t threaten the United States at the same scale, though, doesn’t mean that it lacks leverage altogether. North Korea can still inflict unacceptable harm on U.S. allies, U.S. forces in East Asia and, more recently, on U.S. soil.

North Korea can leverage that capability because of its resolve, or its determination to fight if suitably backed into a corner. After all, North Korea has few choices but to stand resolved. For a weak nuclear state, nearly every crisis is an existential crisis. Sure, if they escalate, they risk a devastating nuclear war. But if they don’t, they risk giving in to threats that could destroy them. Caught between a rock and hard place, states with small nuclear arsenals can often successfully deter their adversaries and withstand coercive pressure.

Risks of Regime Change Reinforce North Korean Resolve to Maintain Nuclear Weapons

Consider the problem from North Korea’s perspective. Pyongyang worries that regime change is the U.S. end goal for North Korea. So, if North Korea agreed to a deal that set limits on or reduced its nuclear program, it would have no way to ensure that the United States wouldn’t simply take advantage of that weakness down the line. After all, the United States pursued regime change in Libya after its disarmament deal and has also pursued decapitation strategies in Iraq and elsewhere.

The fear of regime change doesn’t exist — at least not at the same scale — when adversaries have similar military capabilities. In those cases, a viable threat of regime change couldn’t persist in the first place and demands for denuclearization or demilitarization would be nonstarters.

When crises emerge between the United States and North Korea, leaders in Pyongyang perceive that the fate of the North Korean regime is at risk — a fact that is made worse when recommendations of regime change circulate in Washington. Since nearly every crisis is, for North Korea, an immensely high-stakes situation, it is unsurprising that Pyongyang would typically be more willing than Washington to risk a devastating nuclear exchange.

These dynamics are not limited to the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Studying 24 nuclear crises, we found that when nuclear states are far more powerful than their adversaries, they are unlikely to achieve their goals in crises, due to the weaker state’s greater resolve.

Reducing North Korea’s Resolve

This argument not only suggests a clear limit to the potential benefits a large nuclear arsenal can bring — that is, the United States cannot get its way with North Korea even though Washington is much more powerful — but it also emphasizes the importance of managing the dynamics of resolve.

This imperative goes both ways. The United States must communicate its own resolve to defend its interests and allies in the face of North Korean threats, while also working to undermine North Korean resolve.

Our research shows that, in nuclear crises, states with higher stakes — and, as a result, greater resolve — are at an advantage. To effectively deter them, then, nuclear powers should think about their full package of nuclear policies, from enhancing capabilities to changing posture to maintaining credibility. Each of these components can influence perceptions of resolve, but many also can carry risks of escalation or could spark further arms racing.

Policies designed to balance between these two imperatives will be essential, but this is easier said than done. While the United States has sophisticated nuclear capabilities, convincing others of one’s resolve requires ongoing efforts. Recent trilateral collaboration between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo represents a step in the right direction, but the United States needs to continue to expand its cooperation and work to reassure these allies that it is committed to regional security, while avoiding overly escalatory rhetoric and exercises that could set off a crisis with North Korea.

Addressing North Korean resolve will also prove challenging. While the United States can help the situation by abandoning any hint of regime change, reversing decades of fear won’t happen overnight. Efforts to de-emphasize nuclear threats in the region — including by focusing on conventional deterrence, engaging in arms control with China and exercising caution with bellicose nuclear rhetoric — could prove useful to this end. Even so, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to convince North Korean leaders that they don’t need nuclear weapons to protect themselves. But if the two countries are to coexist peacefully, this is what must come to pass.

Lauren Sukin is an assistant professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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